The Ice Storm

LAST FEBRUARY, with the NHL’s 2020–21 pandemic-shortened season just a month old, The Atlantic published an impertinent provocation: “Hockey Has a Gigantic-Goalie Problem.” The title was literal. Ken Dryden’s piece traced the sport’s arms race, as the refinement of the slap shot and the switch from wooden sticks to lighter composites turned pucks into lethal missiles. This required additional padding for the netkeeper, while the dimensions of his domain remained the same. Amid a worldwide health crisis, Dryden’s jeremiad made it sound like oversize equipment jeopardized the spirit of the game, if not civilization itself.

Particularly intriguing is to watch [goalies] position their body when the action is to one side of their net, near the goal line. On their knees, one leg extended to the bottom far corner, the top of that leg pad filling the five-hole, their upper body crammed up against the post, their shoulders shrugged upward to take away the top corners, all of their body parts coming together so seamlessly. It is like watching an origami master in action, constructing not a paper crane, but a perfect wall.

Dryden is no mere observer, of course. To hockey fans of a certain age, he was the iconic goalie of the 1970s, winning six Stanley Cups in eight seasons with the Montreal Canadiens—his entire NHL career—before hanging up his waffle mitt at age thirty-one. I forwarded the Atlantic essay to friends who, like me, had grown up playing hockey, adding “Pulitzer Prize?”

The author chides six-foot-three Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy for his bulk, but during his prime, the six-foot-four Dryden towered in his crease. On the cover of his critically acclaimed The Game (1983), he stands masked and alone, chin resting atop the butt-end of his upright stick, pondering the action at the other end of the ice—hockey’s version of Rodin’s The Thinker. “After a good save or a bad goal I always hold the pose a little longer, as if wanting to deliver a message,” Dryden writes in The Game. “In a quietly defiant way it reminds fans and opponents, ‘You’ll never get to me.’”

This ambivalence gives The Game its edge. Dryden can vividly break down a game’s ebb and flow on one page, and on the next eloquently lance the NHL’s blind eye toward violence. He candidly denigrates his specialty, goaltending (“a grim, humorless position, largely uncreative”). In eight virtuoso pages, he sketches a sympathetic but crushing portrait of teammate Guy Lafleur. He sees in Lafleur—nicknamed the “Blond Demon,” the most famous forward in the pre-Gretzky ’70s—a romantic idea of destiny, someone carrying the old Canadian spirit of free-range “river hockey,” as opposed to the sport’s suburbanization. But he ultimately finds Lafleur’s unwavering commitment chilling, sees the superstar’s life as an existential trap: “a contented victim, resigned to the future he wants.” (Lafleur died this spring at the age of seventy.)

Charles Pachter, Hockey Knights, 1986, acrylic on canvas, 12 1/2 x 15 3/4". Courtesy the artist and Caviar20.
Charles Pachter, Hockey Knights, 1986, acrylic on canvas, 12 1/2 x 15 3/4". Courtesy the artist and Caviar20.

Dryden writes more warmly of forward Réjean Houle, a miner’s son who “read ‘doom and gloom’ financial newsletters, and magazines; he announced out loud each jump in interest rates, each fall in the dollar, until teammates, noting his torment, gleefully announced them to him first.” But something good happens: Houle starts reading biographies (Martin Luther King, Pierre Trudeau), talking politics, keeping company that enriches his character. This otherwise forgotten journeyman is, for Dryden, an exuberant example of a player with a life outside the sport.

Later in The Game, however, Dryden returns to the financial reality of the typical player:

So, torn between extravagance and tomorrow, it means a Corvette with the signing bonus of your first contract, then agents, lawyers, accountants as partners to the rest, instead of the taxman, hoping the ledger works out right. In the first few years, it seems like more money than can be spent in a lifetime. In the last few, married, with a family, a house and two cars, you wonder where it went. It was money you once had spread in your mind over thirty years or more, but you forgot the price of beer would rise.

Framed as a week in the life, The Game begins with Dryden—Cornell grad, law student—informing Canadiens management that he will retire at the close of the 1979 season. His first book was also about the end, the moment when hockey is not enough.

Yet Dryden has kept writing, interrupted by stints in the Toronto Maple Leafs head office and Canadian Parliament. From 2011 to 2014, he contributed pieces to Grantland; the Atlantic essay compelled me to pick up his recent book Scotty: A Hockey Life Like No Other (2019), about his former Montreal coach Scotty Bowman, now eighty-eight. The project makes sense in theory: Bowman has won more Stanley Cups (nine) than any other coach in NHL history, first for the Canadiens, then for the Penguins and Red Wings, from 1973 to 2002. He has 1,244 career NHL regular-season wins, the most by far. “When Scotty passes,” Dryden writes, “he will take with him what nobody else has seen, what nobody else knows.” His longevity and steel-trap memory would position him as an ideal guide through the last fifty-odd years of NHL history.

Growing up in Verdun, Quebec, the son of Scottish immigrants, Bowman would skate to the outdoor rink, flying down frozen alleys. As a six-year-old, his favorite hockey team, curiously, was the Bruins, whose exploits he caught via Boston’s WHDH on the family radio. Young Scotty would follow the first-period action, then dutifully go to bed; his father would listen to the rest, writing out playmakers’ names for him to study in the morning. (Dryden notes that the announcer would call home games live, and “recreated road games from accounts he was sent via telegraph.”)

Bowman was good enough to play for a junior squad sponsored by the Canadiens, but at eighteen, a blow to the head ended any on-ice aspirations. He couldn’t get the game out of his system, though; even while working his first job, at the Sherwin-Williams paint company, he took his lunch break at the Montreal Forum so he could watch the Canadiens practice. He coached junior teams, eventually leaving the paint world behind. After a stint as a scout, and coaching the Omaha Knights of the unremembered Central Professional Hockey League, he landed with the St. Louis Blues, one of the first NHL expansion teams to augment the “Original Six” in 1967. He promptly led them to three straight appearances in the Stanley Cup finals, and in 1971 took his talents to his hometown team, the Canadiens. The rest is hockey history.

The hitch, bookwise, is that Bowman is not given to introspection; for better or worse, he’s uninterested in settling scores or burnishing his own reputation. His family life is barely mentioned. Dryden doesn’t seek other voices to comment on Bowman’s exploits, and the result—despite the author’s often sly, ironic style—can feel staid. Compare this to Heaven and Hell in the NHL: Punch Imlach’s Own Story, by Bowman’s predecessor as coach and GM of the Buffalo Sabres, which has chapter titles like “I Should Have Traded Schoenfeld” and “I’m Going to Stuff Those Words Down Your Goddamn Throat, Stafford.” (Imlach’s coauthor was Scott Young, father of Neil.)

Scotty is a labor of love, a tribute from a great player to his coach; yet one is tempted to read between the lines for psychodrama. (Dryden, after all, once cited Freud in hoping to explain hockey’s legacy of violence.) He describes Bowman as being so “awkward around others [that] everyone thought he didn’t like being around people.” Tellingly, tantalizingly, he recounts their rough first season together, during which (Dryden admits) he could act like a diva. The team wins the Stanley Cup—Bowman’s first—and Dryden remembers the coach on the ice hugging the players: “When he got to me, he hugged me and I didn’t hug him back.”

“Scotty Bowman is not someone who is easy to like,” Dryden wrote in The Game. “He is shy and not very friendly. If he speaks to reporters or a team, he talks business, and his eyes sweep several inches above their heads.” But Dryden knows that Bowman’s personality doesn’t matter, only his genius. He works himself into a rhetorical lather of italics and semicolons: “What makes Bowman’s style work is an understanding, the understanding that must exist between a coach and his team: he knows the most important thing to a team is to win; we know he does what he does to make us win.” He concludes, almost convincingly: “I like him.” Bowman is vivid in his cameo in The Game, but the 382 pages of Scotty don’t get the reader proportionately closer to what makes the man tick.

The early chapters are the most rewarding—the stolen lunch hours, the endless frigid seasons before all the glory—and Dryden loves to shoehorn off-kilter details. Bowman’s Omaha Knights played at Ak-Sar-Ben Coliseum, the ersatz Egyptian name derived from reversing Nebraska. As assistant coach of the Junior Canadiens, Bowman took the team to Flin Flon (pop. 10,000), a town on the border of Manitoba and Saskatchewan “named after Josiah Flintabbatey Flonatin, the hero of the dime novel The Sunless City.”

Most memorable is the recurring appearance of asthmatic, moody goalie Jacques Plante, “the strangest guy you ever saw,” according to Bowman. Dryden calls him an artist whose “weirdnesses got in the way of others seeing how good he was.” He knit; wore a toque; donned a facemask in 1959 (when no one else did). When Bowman calls the nearly forty-year-old to tend goal for the Blues, the secretary wasn’t in to type out the contract, so Plante did it himself. “Very few players of the time could both knit and type,” Dryden drolly notes. I hated to see him fade from the scene. I want to read a whole book about him.

Ed Park, the author of Personal Days (Random House, 2008), recently finished a novel.